Worlds Apart


Movie Review by Willard Manus

In WORLDS APART, Denmark's nomination in the foreign-film category of the 2009 Academy Awards, writer/director Niels Arden Oplev tells a Romeo and Juliet-like story. The youthful, star-crossed lovers in this case are Sara (Rosalinde Mynster) and Teis (Johan Philip 'Pilou' Asbaek) who enter into a forbidden relationship and must struggle against terrible odds to keep seeing each other.
Sara is the 17-year-old daughter of a family of Jehovah Witnesses, a religious sect which has strict rules concerning the beliefs and behavior of its members. Fundamentalist to the core, the Witnesses frown on alcohol, frivolity and immorality of any kind, especially when it comes to relations between the sexes.
No hanky-panky allowed, beginning with adult men or women. Those who are married must remain faithful to each other, until death do them part. As for those who are single, like Sara, dating--much less sex--is a no-no, grounds for punishment by the church elders.
Sara is a devout believer in Jehovah when the film opens, a lively, thoughtful girl with a compassionate side. After her father, Andreas (Jens Jorn Spottag), broke all the rules by having an affair, Sara stood up for him after he repented publicly for his sins. She also fights desperately to convince her mother, Karen (Sarah Boberg), to forgive Andreas and keep the family intact (Sara has a younger brother and sister).
Karen is too angry and bitter to extend forgiveness. She has walked out, not only on the family but the church itself, choosing instead to live on her own as a non-believer, a doubter. Sara, like the other Witnesses, is dismayed--but not to the extent of disowning her mother. Karen may be an outsider but she's still her mother, someone who deserves her love.
And love is what Sara is all about, really. It's brought home when she meets Teis, who is not a Witness. Not only that, he doesn't have much use for religion of any kind. About the only thing he believes in is his music--he plays in a rock band and also helps produce records.
Still, he's both attracted to Sara and bewildered by her--like most of us, he doesn't know much about the Witnesses, except that they regularly come knocking at our doors, trying to proselytize and convert us.
One of the admirable things about WORLDS APART is the insight it provides into the workings and mindset of the Witnesses, a people who honestly believe the end is near and that on the day of Armageddon only those who believe in Jehovah will be saved. They'll be able to ascend to heaven to join their ancestors for all eternity while the rest of us perish for our sins.
WORLDS APART dramatizes this extreme viewpoint without sneering at it or caricaturing it. The Witnesses are portrayed as recognizable, well-meaning people, even when they turn on Sara for having flaunted church doctrine by taking up with Teis. Led by John (Anders W. Berthelsen), the head of the flock, the elders confront Sara and try to make her see the error of her ways. They are stern and disapproving, not above threatening her with the fires of hell, but at the same time it's clear that they have compassion for Sara and deeply regret having to threaten her like this.
Sara, caught in the middle between her deep-rooted religious beliefs and the power of her love for Teis, must make a difficult, near-impossible choice. Oplev, helped by his excellent cast and creative crew--notably cinematographer Lars Vestergaard--brings Sara's dilemma to life with uncommon force and skill.
WORLDS APART is in Danish with English-language subtitles. It is produced by Nordisk Film in cooperation with TV 2/Denmark.